There’s a Lesson Here Somewhere

11 11 2009


I have a case of the “I told you so’s.”

As I mentioned on Monday, this past weekend I was up in Vermont with some friends.  Two of my friends decided to go hiking.  As much as I wanted to go with them, when the choice came down to hiking or spending the afternoon with my sharp-as-a-tack and deathly sarcastic fifteen-year-old nephew and my four-and-a-half-year-old niece who is cuter than any button I’ve ever seen, my path was clear.

So the other two headed out alone.  (They both have names that start with “A” so let’s call them A and B for simplicity’s sake.)  Well, not alone, since they were together.  This was not a solo hiking expedition, and that part is important to the story.  A and B left around twelve-thirty and set out to hike the Little Rock Pond loop (trailhead in Danby, VT), which is an easy, 4-5 mile hike that runs along the A.T. and the Long Trail and loops around Little Rock Pond before returning on the same trail.  Before leaving, they packed a lunch, strapped on their hiking boots, shouldered their backpacks, and we all had a discussion that it would start getting dark around four-thirty, and they would be back for dinner.  We estimated it would take them ~2-3 hours to complete the hike, though none of us had done it before.

By five-thirty, it was full-on night-time, and they had not returned.  Dinner was cooking, and we all got a little concerned about their whereabouts.  I called A’s cell phone (I didn’t have B’s number), and it went straight to voicemail.  At that point, we figured that two scenarios were likely: (1) they finished the hike early and went into town, losing track of time, and A’s phone died; or (2) they got lost on the mountain.

Now, the second one was concerning, but it didn’t have to mean panic.  It was a warm night (particularly for early November in Vermont).  A is a very experienced hiker, with a good head on his shoulders (not to imply that B doesn’t have a good head on her shoulders, but you know what I mean).  The only member of our group who knew anything about the trail noted that, if they weren’t paying attention they could have missed the loop around the lake and continued north on the A.T. which would eventually spit them out in Wallingford.

By six-thirty, we had decided to mount up and investigate.  I volunteered to drive out to the trailhead and check for their car.  If it was gone, we’d know they were off somewhere.  If it was there, then we’d deal with the next steps and get them home safely.  Just as we were about to leave, they drove in.

It turned out that they had, in fact, missed the loop around the pond and continued north on the A.T.  Eventually they realized their mistake, but not until they had added significant distance and time onto their hike.  On the way back, they found themselves on the wrong part of the loop, and had to backtrack a short ways again to find the right trail.  They also had a bad moment when they were concerned they weren’t on a trail anymore at all.  To make matters more difficult, the sun set, and they hiked for a good long while in the dark to finally, blessedly, make it back to the trailhead.  I hadn’t been able to reach them by phone because A had used a GPS app on his phone that had drained the battery quickly, and B had left her phone in the car.

We were very glad to see them, listened with interest to their story, and were glad it wasn’t more harrowing (no injuries, bad weather, animal encounters, etc.).  After telling the tale, A rolled his eyes and said, “I feel like such an amateur.

Hearing the adventure, I couldn’t help but think about what I have been writing on this blog.  I have been saying that solo hiking is only more dangerous than hiking in groups because you have only yourself to rely on, since most anything that could happen to a solo hiker could happen to non-solos.  I have been outlining basic rules for safety, must-have equipment, and always always always emphasizing the importance of using your head.

It turns out, I’m right.  (There’s the “I told you so.”)  I’d like to thank A and B for providing this real-life, illustrative example so that I could write about it today.

Here’s what A and B did right:

  • They dressed warmly and in layers (November hiking in VT, remember?)
  • They wore appropriate clothing and footwear
  • They packed a flashlight
  • They consulted a map before they left to get an idea of the direction they should be traveling and how long it should take
  • They asked someone who was generally familiar with hike for some information
  • They told people where they were going, and when they expected to be back
  • They made themselves aware of when the sun would set
  • They kept their heads and acted without panic (or much of it) to get themselves out of trouble

Here’s what they did wrong:

  • They didn’t pack extra food
  • They didn’t have a first aid kit
  • They didn’t pay enough attention to the trail itself to notice that they ended up on the wrong one
  • They didn’t place enough emphasis on how much time they had before it would get dark
  • They left a phone in the car, and let the other one drain of battery
  • They were overconfident about the ease of the hike, which lowered their vigilance

This last one is perhaps the most important of all.  This list is not meant to be overly crtitical.  Had I decided to go with them, might I have shrugged at extra precautions?  Maybe.  Like I said, A is an experienced hiker.  He’s an experienced solo hiker.  He’s an experienced de facto trail leader.  This should have been a simple hike: not too long, not too difficult, pretty clearly marked.  In total, not much went wrong.  No one got hurt.  No one was exposed to the elements.  They didn’t actually get lost in the woods, because they were always on a trail, even if it wasn’t the right trail.  And yet, because of a couple of wrong turns, the hike took much longer than intended and left them in darkness.  As simple (and as quick) as that, the easy hike turned into something difficult and harrowing.

The truth of the matter is that A and B had never been on this hike before.  It was unfamiliar.  Even if it was billed as an easy hike, they should have considered the unknown factor when preparing, and not made any assumptions.

And that’s why preparation, precautions, and using your head, both before and during your hike are the key to staying safe, whether you’re hiking alone or with companions.

Yeah, I’m gonna say it again.

I told you so.

Ed: A tells me that he actually estimated the hike would take them 4 hours, not 2-3.  That brings into relief that, starting the hike after 12:30, with darkness falling around 4:30, on a 4 hour hike, is cutting it too close even if you know the trail. 

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.



3 responses

14 11 2009

I think that given how inexpensive and readily available they have become, that hand-cranked dynamos to power or recharge one’s phone / GPS should be standard equipment for ANY outdoor outing, as well as in every glovebox.

14 11 2009

Crash, I’ve never used one of those. Do you have a recommendation? How about one that works with an iPhone? 🙂

12 07 2010
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night… « Her Side of the Mountain

[…] similar happened to my friends.  If you remember, they left for their hike on the late side, were not familiar with the trail, […]

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